I was nine years old when I went to my first birthday party. It was for a girl from my school named Kimberly; she was turning 10 years old. At the time, 10 seemed to be the glorious world of the double digits. In grade school, you were revered for being one of the eldest and first to enter into the “other side.” In her family, an entire decade of life meant a pool party, including 20 other budding girlfriends, three of which fairly jostled for the position of best friend and slumber partygoer with the birthday girl.
Pool parties are plenty of fun when you’re a kid: No unnecessary paranoia that a pair of eyes are watching your body closely, no stress over “shedding those few extra pounds” before the summer season, no second guessing ordering your favorite slushy at the poolside concession stand, and, most importantly, no body dysmorphia clouding your perception of yourself. It must be blissful to not yet understand the all consuming and unfortunately complicated relationship women may likely develop with their bodies later in life. Of course, as a disclaimer, I’d like to mention this is a result of my own experience and complicated relationship with my body; I certainly can’t speak for every girl or woman.
While I’m speaking for myself, I’ll mention that I was never actively taught to love my body. It’s not something we assume we need to learn in between our reading and history lessons. From the very beginning of my girlhood I can recall not feeling as thin or as pretty as other girls. In my mind, I wasn’t much to look at, which in retrospect seems to be too self-depreciative of a way to view oneself at only nine years old. I lucidly recall feeling as though I had to have a swimsuit with a belly flap. I was already too insecure to parade around in one of those scanty, barely there bikinis like most of the other 9-and-10-year-old girls.
As the party progressed, I found myself running around with Kimberly a lot. We would leave the pool for snacks together and run down the hallways of the hotel in our swimsuits whispering and laughing. I even sat by her side as she opened all 20 gifts from her friends. I’d never felt close to Kimberly before, but we were becoming close friends at her birthday party.
It was in the bathroom of her parents’ hotel room that a bunch of us girls crowded around the sink and mirror. Kimberly had pulled down her pants to use the restroom as we’d all pined for glimpses of ourselves in the mirror. A couple of girls giggled to themselves, but not because of the silly peaks of their faces they were catching.
Not only were they laughing at another girl using the toilet, they were laughing at the birthday girl using the toilet.
I’m not sure why girls choose to collaborate and pick apart a single target, much less one of their own. It could have been that so early a young girl’s confidence was being lost fragmentally to the images of princesses and beauty standards, as well as other gender-based social expectations. I personally remember struggling with losing ideas to play with stuffed animals, but that’s a different childlike struggle. Navigating to find a sense of self worth precedes running out of plot lines for your plastic horse family.
The girls looked at Kimberly and whispered some more. For a nine year old, I felt a very profound sense of empathy for her as the girls whispered. It weren’t as though I’d gone my entire life without facing the tyranny of a mean girl and her degrading treatment.
One girl turned down her nose at Kimberly, “You’re so hairy!”
Kimberly crossed her legs and bent over her body, covering herself with her arms. “So?”
“Why?” another girl asked intrusively. Maybe it was genuine, but their question seemed more scrutinizing than inquisitive. It seemed too critical to have merely been childlike curiosity.
I frowned. Were they really being critical of another little girl’s body? At the time I’d never seen a girl as mature as Kimberly, with tufts of auburn hair between and down her legs, but I recalled no negative connotation with body hair. My legs were just as hairy, but I’d never felt insecure about it until then.
“I have some,” I decided to say. Kimberly looked wide-eyed at me. “Yeah,” I said, stressing positivity in my tone. I was acting out of pure empathy for Kimberly, sensing her embarrassment. “Lots of it. It’s normal, my Mom told me so,” I said. “Eventually we all get it.” I was speaking about menstruation. It never occurred to me that body hair might not be “normal” for girls.
“If you shave it comes back darker,” said one girl, hinting shyly that she’d experienced body hair as well. “I know because I shaved my legs; my big sister taught me how.”
“Why do you have to get rid of it?” I asked the shy girl. “Did your sister say why?”
The musing was childlike, but in hindsight fostered many ideas. Of course, these ideas came only after my early teenage-hood and my personal experiences with negative body image and body dysmorphia. I wasn’t alone; nearly 80 percent of girls and women in Western culture wrestle with some form of an eating disorder at some point in their lives. I suppose that in our culture it’s unbearably common for women and girls to think poorly of their self-image.
As a feminist, I find it ironic that I may have learned to depreciate my body so early from the judgment and harassment of other young girls. Of course, young girls aren’t to blame for perpetuating their own culture: a culture obsessed with female beauty and the female body.
Growing up, I dealt with the mentality that I was living as though confined to my body temporarily; my body perpetually awaited improvement. Perhaps it’s a learned mentality from years of weight loss and beauty commercials that promise you’ll love yourself after you’ve committed, consumed, and thrown away the rest. Why was I not allowed to love my body for each supposed flaw? Why was I not permitted to love what I saw? Some might say that I was, but I have to argue that I haven’t felt that I loved my body entirely, as it came, since I was a child. When you’re born into a culture of consumption and conformity, young girls are likely to perpetuate damaging beauty standards as a result.
It seems that most women are expected to live in their bodies temporarily. Have you tried this razor or that anti-wrinkle serum? Have you modified your body in this way or that? We’re sold the idea that if we aren’t working or spending on our bodies, we’re slacking. We’re lazy. We’re dirty, too masculine, and not the widely perceived, manufactured idea of feminine. Our bodies become projects. We become worried about not meeting expectations, regardless of whether they are a direct result of the fragmented idea of beauty that we’re being sold or not.
We’re swallowing the idea that maybe, just maybe in the distant future if we work hard enough and commit ourselves to it – we could possibly, maybe look thin enough so that we finally feel at ease and secure with ourselves as people again. Maybe that bikini body I’m so desperate for could be mine, the one I’ve been desperate for since I was a 9-year-old.
We may be conscious of the idea that it’s silly to chase unrealistic expectations (shedding 30 pounds in two weeks; finding an option that stunts hair growth for longer periods of time or indefinitely; beauty standards that only expensive surgeries or airbrushing can provide), but we aren’t conscious of the subliminal message that undermines our self worth: We’re not good enough. Not now, but maybe. Maybe in the future. We’re being sold the weak promise of a maybe. So we stay discontent until we exhaust ourselves enough, spend too much, break ourselves down to be something that was meant to profit someone else.
As people and as women, we aren’t in a perpetual state of “progress.” Our bodies are not ideas we or someone else have concocted, despite whether we believe them to be our own after years of consumption, consumption, consumption. I want to regain the childlike sense of security about my body that has long been overshadowed by oppressive images and ideas that I’ve mistakenly condoned.
Why aren’t we allowed to be secure and confident, wrinkles, grey hair, crimped hair, bumpy noses, big feet, flabby thighs and bellies, body hair and all? I want to love my body the way I loved it for how it came. I want to love my body the way I loved it before my preoccupation with what others believe it should be. I do love my body, but everywhere I look I’m told that I would love a newer, shinier, prettier one much better.
A body is a body. Love your body. Repeat after me, “I love my body and I am unafraid of what I or others may believe it to be. My body is my body, and I love my body for exactly what it is and not for what it could be.”
Reader submission by Rachel Lewis